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Northland Nature: Watching hornets' nests grow

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

A close look at a bald-faced hornet as it exits the nest. Note the large white jaws. (Photo by Larry Weber)

We have been able to watch plenty of insect happenings throughout the warm months. Shortly after the arrival of black flies and mosquitoes in May, we saw the night glow with fireflies.

Dragonflies prevailed during June and their diversity and population was seen again this year. Species vary from April to October and we are never without them. Now, small, red meadowhawk dragonflies abound.

Later in the summer, butterflies got our attention. These “flying flowers” showed us how abundant they are in midsummer. Varying in size and color, they fluttered through these hot days. Like dragonflies, we still have some with us late in the season, notably white cabbage and yellow sulphurs.

And there was the annual flight of mayflies; abundance depends on our location, but we all see some. Now with the lesser amount of daylight, there are other insect activities.

Bird migration is easy to see now, as is migration of a couple insects. Best known is the monarch flight, going south of the border. Not as long of a flight or as well-known is the migration of green darner dragonflies. Some days at Hawk Ridge, more darners pass by than raptors.


Another strange phenomenon at this time may be in our yards: the flight of ants. As a way of dispersal from the populated colonies underground, they take to the air — the only time in the ant’s lives when they have wings. To our surprise, we may notice “a bunch of bugs” flying up from a hole in the ground.

I was fortunate to have a nest of hornets on the side of a nearby building this summer. As the season progressed, this structure grew. Beginning about the size of a golf ball in June, it reached maturity, nearly the size of a football in August. Throughout these days, there was constant movements of hornets, in and out of the nest opening.

The hornet nest as seen in midsummer. Note the workers on the outside the nest and one at the entrance. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Hornet nests are often referred to as “bee hives," but they are quite different. Whereas honey bees make their structures to raise young and to store food for winter (honey), hornets make theirs only for raising young.

They are also called wasps, which they are related to, but differ by forming large colonies. Hornets that I observed, bald-faced hornets, are cousins of yellowjackets. The black and white bodies are about 1-inch long, with strong white jaws.

Following the warming temperatures of spring, the queen — the only survivor of last year’s colony — wakes from hibernation, usually under a log.

Impregnated last fall, she proceeds to chew wood fibers and start a new nest. This small nest holds her first batch of a few eggs. They grow into workers that proceed to enlarge the dwelling as the queen continues to produce dozens of eggs.


Inside the nest, are three or four layers of maybe 100 hexagonal chambers. Each holds one egg that hatches to be a larva. Workers catch insects to feed the larvae, forming pupae that mature to become hundreds of workers. This summer pattern continues until we approach fall.

Triggered by shorter days, the queen lays no more eggs. The worker females are no longer needed and so they disperse until succumbed by the cold. Males and new queens are produced and leave the nest to prepare for the next year.

Usually placed on tree branches, these abandoned nests become easy to see when leaves drop in autumn. I’ve been able to watch this change of the hornet nest and growing colony throughout the season, until it was abandoned.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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